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Listen to the General(s)


Thank God for Tom Davis (R-Va.) He fully understands the constitutional role of the Congress. Davis has sent a letter to Henry Waxman, chair of the House Oversight Committee, with a very sharp demand. The Committee needs to set aside all other work and immediately take up a matter so gripping that it supersedes everything: Why, he asks, did the organization get a more than 50% price break when it recently ran an advertisement in the New York Times attacking the Administration’s plans to continue its “surge” in Iraq?

I understand Rep. Davis fully. Why should the Oversight Committee be looking into the roughly twenty billion dollars that have disappeared down mysterious rat holes in Iraq; why should it be looking into the festering open wound called FEMA; why should it be considering the operating rules governing security contractors who are running amuck in Iraq and Afghanistan, endangering U.S. soldiers and destroying America’s reputation? The people aren’t concerned about this trivia. And heaven forbid that Congress should actually examine and discuss Iraq policy itself, or the increasingly obvious disaster in Afghanistan. No, what Americans want is for Congress to get to the bottom of the internal advertising practices of the New York Times. How did this group of lefties get such a good deal; how did they land a page at the stand-by rate?! (But, by the way, let’s ignore Fox News, which operates as a G.O.P. campaign soapbox 24/7, using ever less care to disguise its political pimping–of course, it’s a broadcaster and actually subject to Congressional oversight).

Rep. Davis is reading from the last set of cue cards that Karl Rove left behind before making his exit from the White House. What did they say? Americans don’t trust George Bush and the Republican leadership when it comes to the war. Americans trust and respect their military leaders. Therefore the way forward is clear: identify a serving general to use as a sock puppet. Use him as the voice of the Administration. As Roll Call reports (subscription required), conservative columnist Morton Kondracke was recently at a meeting with President Bush at which “the Decider” laid out the strategy in plain terms: “The people listen to Petraeus, not to me.” So the plan was simple: pretend to be undecided about this, channel the message through General Petraeus, and then viciously challenge anyone who criticizes Petraeus. They’re un-American, that’s the line, they disrespect our generals and our men and women in uniform.

This is one of the more amazing acts of political cowardice in recent American history. And what’s the result? After the brain-dead chattering class of Potomac pundits declared the week a resounding success for Petraeus and the Bush Administration, the polls came out. No, it seems, Americans are not nearly as stupid as the Potomac punditry. Support for the Bush Plan (let’s be honest about it, Petraeus has painfully little to do with it) fell from 35% to 31% following a week of sustained media barrage. Americans saw through it.

What amazed me about this entire spectacle was not that the Rove plan was implemented so flawlessly, nor that the American public refused to buy it. Both of those things were, at this point, predictable. No, the amazing thing is the way the mainstream media dishes it all up without criticism or commentary. It makes itself a willing tool in the Administration’s propaganda war. And Rep. Davis’s request is another, particularly absurd, extension of that propaganda war. Don’t think about the Iraq War issues, it reasons, keep on the attack against anyone who criticizes the Sainted General we have made the new vehicle for our message.

The Administration has a right to put out its message and the media should transmit it. But the media should be circumspect and critical about the way the message is packaged. And in this case, the fraud in the inducement was the whole idea that the plan that the White House was offering up was in fact General Petraeus’s plan.

There are some basic rules to keep in mind. The exercise of the powers of war and peace involve essentially political decision-making. On these matters, the political leaders should receive the professional advice of the uniformed military on how military objectives are best accomplished. But the determination of political objectives is for the political leadership, not the military. This is not a trivial point. And at this point nothing could be more obvious than this: America’s military objectives have been consistently met in Iraq. The problem is the political objectives, which were ill-conceived from the outset and which have, if anything, gotten murkier and less clear as time has progressed.

But the current exercise in political theater is an assault on a bedrock principle. The notion of civilian control of the military is a fundamental aspect of our democracy—a foundational principle that every U.S. president has insisted upon, and indeed, that George Washington insisted upon when he was a general and not a president. Making that system work requires making a clear distinction between the role of the professional military and the role of the elected political leader and abiding by that distinction.

When the career military are seen as involved in the political decision-making, then the military as a whole is tarred when those decisions turn out to be wrong. But it’s the politicians and not the military who should be held to account.

The Bush Administration’s position has, from the outset of the war, been that it knows better than the career military about how to wage the war. When General Eric Shinseki said the Iraqi occupation would require 325,000 troops, the reaction was swift and simple: he got sacked. His name now stands at the top of a list of a dozen or more flag officers canned because they insisted on their professional analysis of the situation.

The current game of kabuki theater involving General Petraeus involves a continuation of the disastrous policies that led us into Iraq. How do I know that? Because I listen to the generals. Not the generals who are still serving, who are bound (for good reason) to do the bidding of the president. I listen to the generals who have just taken off their uniforms and are therefore free to say what they think. And I apply the measure that the wise Miguel de Unamuno gave us for discourse with generals: I can be persuaded when they use not the glamor of their uniforms, but reason and right in the struggle.

Like the former Iraq ground commander, General Ricardo Sanchez. In a speech in Corpus Christi this weekend, Sanchez said this:

My assessment is that we have a crisis in national political leadership. When will America recognize the danger we face? When will the corrosive partisanship of American politics end and allow for a bipartisan solution to arguably the most dangerous threat our nation has faced in over 60 years?

And when pressed to explain what he meant—which part of our leadership has failed us—Sanchez said “the most senior political leadership,” the White House. For three months now, Sanchez has been making off-the-record statements. He eventually came to the conclusion, he says, that Republican politics had trumped the national security interests of the United States in the execution of plans in Iraq. The Bush Administration had not planned to win in Iraq, but simply to keep a war running so Bush could run around and play “war president.” That is as devastating a criticism as any general has made of a president since the days of Douglas MacArthur. Unlike MacArthur’s criticisms, however, it has the advantage of being accurate.

And General Sanchez is not alone. He’s part of a swelling group of generals and admirals who’ve decided to come clean and speak the truth about the Bush Administration’s shocking and on-going misadministration of the war.

Mark Sauer of the San Diego Union-Tribune looked at the phenomenon and had this to say:

The generals acted independently, coming in their own ways to the agonizing decision to defy military tradition and publicly criticize the Bush administration over its conduct of the war in Iraq. What might be called The Revolt of the Generals has rarely happened in the nation’s history. In op-ed pieces, interviews and TV ads, more than 20 retired U.S. generals have broken ranks with the culture of salute and keep it in the family. Instead, they are criticizing the commander in chief and other top civilian leaders who led the nation into what the generals believe is a misbegotten and tragic war.

The active-duty generals followed procedure, sending reports up the chain of command. The retired generals beseeched old friends in powerful positions to use their influence to bring about a change. When their warnings were ignored, some came to believe it was their patriotic duty to speak out, even if it meant terminating their careers.

It was a decision none of the men approached cavalierly. Most were political conservatives who had voted for George W. Bush and initially favored his appointment of Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary. But they felt betrayed by Bush and his advisers. “The ethos is: Give your advice to those in a position to make changes, not the media,” said Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, now retired. “But this administration is immune to good advice.”

But now consider how the mainstream media has dealt with this. We saw saturation coverage of the Petraeus-Crocker briefings for a week. And what did you see of the twenty (actually by my count it’s far more than twenty) generals and admirals who criticized the Bush Administration’s exercise in marionette theater? Barely a mention. And that’s an extremely revealing fact.

I’m not settled on what the best course is for the war in Iraq. The questions are very complex, and there are no obvious answers. But I am convinced that the best solution will involve taking the advice of the generals. And by that I mean men and women who have taken off their uniforms and are free to speak their minds. And yes, I’d be happy to take General Petraeus into account too, as soon as I can hear from him and not the Rovian puppet who keeps bobbing in front of the TV cameras. I’d probably be even more interested in hearing from his boss, Admiral Fallon, who has a reputation for being more of a straight-shooter and is less concerned about a future race for president.

Yes, I respect the general. But is it too much to ask that Bush and his supporters offer some respect and attention to the generals?

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